Behind Closed Doors: 'My Soul is Free'
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
In our segment Behind Closed Doors, we talk about things hidden in closets, difficult topics. Today, this might be one of the hardest things we'll ever talk about.
Dominic Carter, an award-winning political journalist in New York, had a secret. Despite his vivacious personality, his take-no-prisoners reporting, his easy way with the big names, Dominic was carrying the pain of growing up with a mentally ill mother who abused him in every way. He writes about it in a brutally frank memoir called "No Momma's Boy."
He joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks for being here, Dominic.
Mr. DOMINIC CARTER (Author, "No Momma's Boy"): Michel, it's an honor to be here and talk to a journalist of your caliber.
MARTIN: Well, that's nice for you to say, Dominic. But listen, you know, you are very well known in New York. You're host of New York One's "Inside City Hall," which one critic calls the 60-minutes of local television. And forgive me for saying it, but you're a big, loud guy in big, loud city. You could have gone your whole life just kind of living up to that image. What made you want to tell this story?
Mr. CARTER: Michel, you are 150 percent correct, but you mentioned about having things in the closet. My entire life - you need to understand that I've had the shackles of shame, and I've been running and hiding from myself. I've been a highly successful journalist, but what I had to deal with my entire life - I didn't even know the extent of my mother's mental illness. I juts knew, Michel, growing up, that she wasn't there for months at a time or even years at a time.
And what I had to deal with was the fact that, when I was 7 years old, my mother sexually abused me. And one has to understand how reprehensible that is. And what do I mean by that? From that moment on, with each passing birthday, you realize how bad something like that is. And no matter what success I've achieved, Michel, as a journalist - interviewing Nelson Mandela, going to the White House, moderating the debate with Hillary Clinton - I've always had to deal with this in terms of the sexual abuse. And then, at the age of 40, for the first time in my life, I found out the full extent of my mother's illness.
MARTIN: You know, we have a name for it now. Your mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. But did you always know that something was wrong with her?
Mr. CARTER: I honestly did not know. I want to say to you I grew up poor in the projects of New York City, never had my dad in my life. In fact, one thing that humbles me, Michel, is the fact that most people have two parents on their birth certificates. With me, my dad never even signed my birth certificate. In my community, a poor community of the Bronx in New York, most of the kids were like me to the degree that there were not many fathers around. So I didn't know that I was an illegitimate child. And because I was surrounded by so much love, I did not - to answer your question directly - know the extent of my mother's illness. I did not know until I was 40 years old.
MARTIN: Your aunt particularly did not want you to tell this story. And I wondered if you were at all scared yourself to talk about this?
Mr. CARTER: My aunt, she means well and you have to look at it from her point of view. She raised me and no one had any idea how high I would achieve, how high I would go. And so she's a very proud woman and she only wanted the story of successful newscaster to go out. I feel that I'd be a coward if I didn't come forward. I don't think anyone can understand the agony you're in if you've been sexually abused in terms of the stigma of mental illness. Understand this point: My mother never discussed her mental illness with me.
MARTIN: Before you realized the extent of her illness, did you ever confront her about the way she treated you?
Mr. CARTER: I've been on such a fast track in terms of trying to make it as a journalist, and I guess I've been in denial in terms of - about my past. I honestly forgot the brutal beatings that existed. My wife would constantly try and bring us together, and I would resist. My entire life I basically wanted nothing to do with my mother because the sexual abuse was still in my mind. And, you know, they would just try to bring us together and I would resist.
And it was only at age 40, and it's important for me to say this, when I saw the records, it literally broke my heart. When I read the records of psychiatrists, I did, Michel, the most difficult story of my life. It's very easy for me - you know, a number of New Yorkers are running for president now, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, possibility of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, very easy for me to question those people and be very tough on them. The toughest interview of my life was that interview of my mom when I tried to ask her why did she sexually abuse me. She was so embarrassed when I tried to confront her about this. And all she said to me, this is the only answer I would ever give in life, she said, boy, leave me alone with that. She died in 2001. And I received her records - I was so embarrassed. You have to understand, I'm very popular in terms of exposure in New York and the folks…
MARTIN: Oh, I know.
Mr. CARTER: …at Mount Sinai…
MARTIN: You don't have to tell me.
Mr. CARTER: Well, thank you. But the folks at Mount Sinai, I reached out to them and I tried to be very discreet about it. And immediately the supervisor got on the phone, they recognized my voice, and they got back to me. And they said, Mr. Carter - and I could tell she was embarrassed for me. She said, we've found 620 pages of psychiatric records as it relates to your mother.
And when I went to the post office to look at those records, my wife was with me and I literally wanted to crawl under the table and cry like a baby. That's what I really wanted to do. And then it started to come back to me. I read that when - in the documents, not my mother's words, not my words, the words of law enforcement and psychiatrists - that when I was two years old, my mother attempted to strangle me to death. And the only thing that stopped her was the fact that I started crying and it startled her. And neighbors heard it and called the police. And she was immediately sent to Bellevue Hospital at that time.
The records went on. She heard voices telling her consistently to throw me out of a window. So, I report on child abuse cases as a journalist. I literally could have ended up easily one of those cases and you probably wouldn't have even heard of my situation. My mother was in numerous state institutions in Georgia and here in New York state. When I drive home out to a suburb outside of New York City, every day I see the state hospital sign. I have to drive past it. It's a facility called Rockland State. Every major institution in New York and in Georgia, psychiatric institution, my mom was treated in it.
MARTIN: I'm talking with Dominic Carter, host of New York One's "Inside City Hall" and author of the book "No Momma's Boy." What made you even think to do it?
Mr. CARTER: When you've gone through what I've gone through in terms of the sexual abuse, you have to understand, Michel, where I'm coming from in terms of from a very young age. At one point in the book I say, I worried, would I be a freak of nature after the sexual abuse. I worried, would I even want a woman. These were things I - because of what had happened sexually between my mother and myself. I did not know the answer. So all my life I did not know much about me. I knew that my father didn't want me and didn't sign my birth certificate. I knew that my mother was really not in the picture. I even knew that my granddad happened to be a heroin addict here in the city of New York. And I decided that I was tired of running. And I do want to emphasize this, Michel, that I can deal with the journalism stuff, I can deal with all of that, the politicians. I feel like 800 pounds has been lifted from my soul. And for the first time in my life, I'm free.
MARTIN: You had a major crash after your mother died.
Mr. CARTER: Yes, I did.
MARTIN: I mean, you had a major depression. I think you're very brave in the way you write about all of this. And particularly, I have to say, Dominic, as an African-American man, who we don't hear often about - we don't hear a lot about men period experiencing sexual abuse and the effect that it has on them. And I think there's a particular - there's an added layer of being African-American and I think not necessarily wanting to talk about the dirty laundry. And then, of course, you're public figure on top of that. So I wanted to ask, what effect do you think all you went through had on you when you were growing up?
Mr. CARTER: The effect that it's had on me is that I've never wanted to feel sorry for myself. I always feared that if I started crying, from age seven, that I would never stop. And communities of color, and with all Americans, the stigma of mental illness, we like to act like it doesn't exist. But I assure you to every person listening to this show, you can be in denial all you want to, but somewhere in your family there is someone that is dealing with mental illness, whether it be a mild depression, whether it be something much more serious.
And so you're also right that in particular men, you know, we're macho. We don't discuss things like this. We're tough guys. Only women get abused. I mean, these are the stereotypes that we hear about. But that's nonsense. It happens to more men than you can imagine. And Michel, I speak a lot to public groups. After every speech, guaranteed one or two people, mostly women, will come up to me afterwards and they will say, thank you, I was also sexually abused.
And so I'm using any credibility that I have to say listen, these things happen in life. They happened to me. And we need to deal with them. Get help if you're dealing with abuse or sexual abuse. I'm trying to say that we need to stop this nonsense of being in denial and deal with the fact that these are two major issues affecting Americans all over the country.
MARTIN: Well, Dominic, what's been the reaction to the book? And what are you working on now?
Mr. CARTER: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. What I'm working on is - one of the things that I'm proud of is the fact that I went from being in denial and so on, growing up about the sex abuse and my mother's mental illness, to now I want to be clear with people to understand that I had to forgive her for what happened in order to start healing myself. When I went to therapy to try and deal with the anger problem I was having, I was so embarrassed I didn't discuss it with her. So to this day she does not know that I was a victim of sex abuse by my own mother.
MARTIN: Wow, you didn't even want to tell the psychiatrist?
Mr. CARTER: I didn't even - it was a therapist but I didn't even want to tell her. And, you know, it's funny what I say to people across America is show some respect to your loved ones. Because my mom - she had called me and I didn't take her call, Michel. And it's something just like out of a movie. I didn't take her call and that was my last time to ever speak to her in life.
And the next time I saw her, she had had a heart attack. She was lying in the bed. So for all my prestige as a political reporter, I could do nothing to help her. She was lying in the bed and her eyes were taped shut because she was having seizure activity and she was being kept alive on machines. And that was the first time in my life - she would die 20 days later - that I ever called my mother mom.
I told her I didn't want her to die, but it was too late at that point. I just say to people, try and show a little compassion to your loved ones. Yes, they get on our nerves. Yes, they ask us for favors nonstop. Yes, we don't have the patience, but they're your loved ones. And always remember that tomorrow's not promised to any of us.
So in the memory of my mother - I'm a journalist, so I can't be an advocate, but I am speaking now about mental illness. And so, for example, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, known as NAMI, if you look on their Web site nationally, you will see that there are four books they recommend to read this summer: "No Momma's Boy" is one of those books. And I'm very proud of the fact that when they held their first walkathon in New York City in May of this year, I proudly marched as their grand marshal. I proudly, in the memory of my mother - and I'll tell you why I'm proud of her.
Michel, it essentially rained every day of my mother's life. She didn't own any worldly possession. She didn't own a house. I don't even recall anyone ever having a birthday party for her. And she dealt with severe mental illness. But you know what, Michel, she never gave up, ever.
MARTIN: Dominic, how does it feel now to have the 800-pound guerilla off your back, all the shame, the secrecy? How does it feel now?
Mr. CARTER: I feel almost like I've been reborn. If I died tonight, I would be happy. My soul is free.
MARTIN: Dominic, I'm so glad.
Dominic Carter is a political correspondent at New York One News in New York. He's written a new memoir, "No Momma's Boy." He joined us from our bureau in New York.
Dominic, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CARTER: Michel, it's been my pleasure. And I thank you for all the things that you're doing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.